Didn’t receive an invitation to this week’s abdication ceremony of Japanese Emperor Akihito on May 30 or the coronation of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, on May 1?
The good news is you can join the country’s biggest “after party” at their home.
On May 4, the newly crowned Naruhito and his wife, Masako, will make their first public appearance in their new roles at their residence – the historic Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
A rare opportunity to visit the Imperial Palace
In addition to getting a rare glimpse of the royal family at their home, visitors will have a chance to go inside the Imperial Palace.
The palace, a 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station, was first built in the late 1800s but destroyed during World War II, then rebuilt in the same style afterward.
Besides being the residence for the royal family, the Imperial Palace also houses various historical structures, moats and bridges.
With the exception of guided tours that require pre-registration, the palace’s grounds are usually only open to the public twice a year – for the imperial family’s New Year greeting on January 2 and the abdicating Emperor Akihito’s birthday on December 23.
Things to consider before joining the May 4 celebration
On May 4, the Chrysanthemum Throne’s new emperor and empress will wave from the balcony of Chowa-Den Hall once every hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., together with other royal family members.
Gates will open at 9:30 a.m. and close at 2:30 p.m. but visitors are advised to arrive at the Imperial Palace Plaza at least two hours in advance as a huge crowd is expected.
How huge? Well, more than 150,000 people turned up to see the royal family during this year’s New Year greeting, if that’s any indicator of how big a deal it is.
Baggage inspection will be carried out at the entrance, the Nijubashi main gate. Larger bags are best stored in lockers at train stations before arrival at the Palace.
Photos are allowed – except for commercial purposes – but tools like tripods and selfie sticks are banned (there’s a full list of prohibited items on the official Imperial Household Agency website.)
What to see while you’re in the palace
To make the most of your visit, it’s worth getting to know the structures of the Imperial Palace beforehand.
Some of the historical sites visitors will encounter on May 4 include Nijubashi (a steel bridge usually closed to visitors), the Kyuden Totei Plaza (where the public will gather for the appearance), the main Imperial Palace, the Kunaicho Chosha (the more modern Imperial Household Agency Building) and the Fushimi-Yagura Keep (a three-story tower dating back to Japan’s Edo-period), which is located at the top left-hand corner of Totei Plaza.
When exiting the Imperial Palace, visitors can choose to leave through the Kikyo-mon Gate, where they’ll walk past the former Privy Council Building and Someikan (Visitors’ House).
Visiting Japan’s Imperial Palace on other days
Don’t fret if the crowd is too big or you can’t make it to the palace on May 4.
Visitors can always register for one of the official guided tours, which take place year-round.
There are two daily tours available conducted in Japanese or English. These kick off at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily, except for Sunday, Monday and days when the palace is hosting special events,
Starting at Kikyo-mon Gate, the 75-minute tour will take you to 11 historical sites on the Imperial Grounds.
To register, head for the Imperial Household Agency website.
It’s recommended to book a tour at least three weeks in advance. If you can’t score a spot online (May is fully booked already), you can still try your luck on the day. Just arrive at the palace’s Kikyo-mon Gate ahead of the meeting time and see if they have any extra spaces.
Other Imperial Palace attractions
The Imperial Palace East Gardens
The Imperial Palace East Gardens are open daily, year-round, except Mondays, Fridays and special occasions.
Free to visit, the East Gardens are home to many attractions including the Museum of the Imperial Collections (Sannomaru Shozokan).
The Imperial Palace running route
The unofficial Imperial Palace running ‘course’ skirts the parameter of the palace (you don’t actually go into the grounds). Along the way you’ll encounter the National Museum of Modern Art, the British Embassy and see the Tokyo Tower in the distance.
The scenic five-kilometer route is lined with bushes and a spacious moat.
Once part of the Edo Castle grounds, the beautiful Kitanomaru Park is surrounded by a moat.
Popular as an urban getaway since opening to the public in 1969, it’s now home to the National Museum of Modern Art, the Nippon Budokan (Japanese Martial Arts Center) and Science Museum.
It’s also one of the most scenic places in Tokyo to see cherry blossoms and autumn foliage.